Many years ago, a story floating in the eddies of Harvard’s institutional memory goes, a team of monks in South Asia was charged with the task of typing up the paper editions of The Crimson and turning them into a digital archive.
When I first heard this story in November, it seemed very strange. Who were these monks? How did they find themselves transcribing The Crimson? Why did The Crimson even think to hire monks in the first place? Finding the monks quickly became my obsession.
Of course, as it usually is, the true story is much more complicated than that — but back in November, all I knew was the story about the monks. I’d heard the story late one night at The Crimson, when an editor found a typo in an article archived on the website from the 1960s and mused that “the monks” must have been getting tired.
These days, Crimson articles are first published online and then copied from the website and pasted into electronic design templates for the printers in The Crimson’s basement. But every article that has ever appeared in The Crimson’s pages, going back to the paper’s founding in 1873, is also online — not scanned, but fully typed. Anyone who cares to look can find the results of the Harvard-Yale game of 1887, for example, simply by searching for it on The Crimson’s website.
It took a concerted effort for those past editions to be put online. But nobody seemed to remember anymore exactly how or when that effort had taken place. Had it really been monks? No one could tell me.
So, I turned to Fred Burchsted, a Widener Library research librarian. Burchsted told me that he, too, had heard the story about monks transcribing The Crimson, but he thought the story seemed too good to be true. Still, he wondered where it came from. After a few minutes dredging through databases and repositories, Burchsted found my first clue: “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas L. Friedman, a 2005 book about how globalization and information technology changed the world economy.
The story of The Crimson’s transcription, Friedman writes, is one of his favorite examples of “social entrepreneurship.” Friedman tells the story of Harvard alumnus Jeremy B. Hockenstein ’94, who left his job at McKinsey and co-founded a nonprofit, Digital Divide Data (DDD), with the goal of creating job opportunities for skilled workers in poor countries. In 2001, DDD recruited 20 workers from two Cambodian nonprofits and went to work on its first project: transcribing 19th-century editions of The Crimson.
Hockenstein’s project did not go uncriticized — people both on and off Harvard’s campus condemned The Crimson for employing the services of DDD.
“A new archiving project by The Harvard Crimson is drawing controversy for its employment of Cambodian typists,” reads a Crimson article from the time. Published on July 27, 2001, it notes that while DDD was to pay the Cambodian workers $2.40 a day — significantly above the 50 cent per day Cambodian poverty line established by the World Bank — a July 24 Boston Globe article about the project had accused The Crimson of hypocrisy in employing low-wage foreign workers.
“The Harvard Crimson, which often editorializes in favor of a ‘living wage’ for campus workers, is turning to low-cost Asian typists for the biggest undertaking in its 128-year history,” Patrick Healy wrote in a Boston Globe article published in 2001. The article quotes Harvard activists who call The Crimson “morally reprehensible” and say the affair is “like a prank in its outlandishness.” But it also quotes one of the Cambodian typists, Naleak Eng, who describes her life as having been “hopeless until this opportunity.”
When I remind Hockenstein, currently the CEO of DDD, about Healy’s critical Boston Globe article over the phone, he starts speaking faster. “I haven’t looked it up in all these years,” he says. “I should go look at it. I blocked it out because it was so painful.” When the article came out, Hockenstein was in Cambodia setting up shop.
On a vacation trip to the Cambodian Buddhist temple Angkor Wat in 2000, Hockenstein says, he had noticed young workers who were beginning to learn English and computer skills but could find no job opportunities in a country only beginning to recover from the Cambodian genocide. “I really wanted to try to help,” he says.
Hockenstein was living in Cambridge at the time and had friends on the graduate board of The Crimson. When he heard the paper wanted its archives transcribed, he volunteered his fledgling company’s services.
So, in 2001, Hockenstein bought ten computers and hired 20 local workers. They found the workers through two local nonprofits: Cambodian Volunteer for Community Development, which trained poor Cambodians to use computers, and Maryknoll Wat Than, which taught people with physical disabilities crafts and computer skills.
“I told each of them, ‘send people who type really quickly and we’ll try to find them work,’” Hockenstein recalls. The 20 fast typists, 10 from each nonprofit, worked two six-hour shifts in the mornings and afternoons. DDD paid half of their tuition to take English classes for a few hours at night.
Since at first DDD was only responsible for transcribing the 19th century editions of The Crimson, Hockenstein says he found himself in the position of trying to explain to the Cambodian workers the importance of the crew race results that comprised much of The Crimson’s coverage during those years.
“I like to say, the only socially redeeming thing that came from a crew race between Harvard and Yale in 1873 is that it created a job in Cambodia 130 years later,” Hockenstein says.
Naleak Eng, the former DDD typist quoted in the Boston Globe article, who is now married and goes by Naleak Eng O’Brien, says she didn’t have enough English at the time to understand what she was typing. To her, though, that wasn’t very important. This was the first job she had ever had. “I was so excited, she says.”
Eng O’Brien was hired through Maryknoll Wat Than, the nonprofit that trained Cambodians with physical disabilities; she was born with two fingers and a thumb on each hand.
At age 20, without a high school education, Eng O’Brien says she was mostly dependent on her family. “If you have a disability in Cambodia, people don’t see you the same. They would say, ‘Oh, you cannot do anything,’” she says, adding that this was compounded by the fact that women were expected to “just stay at home.”
When she was hired by DDD, she saw a chance to gain some independence. “I can be more confident in my life,” she recalls thinking. “I can do something more.” The day she heard she’d gotten the job, her family cooked a celebratory feast. She stayed up most of that night writing and re-writing a thank you note for Hockenstein.
Eng O’Brien says she remembers her days working with DDD as a “very happy time, and a tough time too.” Most of the other students in the English classes she took at night had some experience with the language; she had none and needed to work hard to catch up.
During the day, she and her colleagues would race to finish typing The Crimson articles they were working on. “I still miss typing, because I love how when we work together we always try to compete with each other,” she says. “I know it sounds silly, like kids, but we competed ‘who is the faster one....’ I won a lot,” she laughs.
Eng O’Brien worked with DDD until 2005. That year, Hockenstein brought some of DDD’s donors to visit. Eng O’Brien led them on a tour of Angkor Wat temple, and they offered to sponsor her to move to Massachusetts. Eng O’Brien attended English-as-a-second-language classes and then Quincy College, and now lives in the Boston area with her husband and two young children. She works part-time at the Northern Bristol County Registry of Deeds and hopes to start working full-time once her children are older.
Eng O’Brien’s story is, as Hockenstein acknowledges, an exceptional one for DDD. But he says that DDD made a significant impact on the lives of many workers who stayed in Cambodia as well. He says that in a recent survey, the average income for graduates of DDD’s programs was around $500 a month – about $385 more than Cambodia’s average per-capita household income. “Their education and work experience has really led them to the middle class,” he says. “That’s what we’re most proud of.”
Having found the people across the globe who transcribed the 19th-century editions of The Crimson, I was left with another question: where had the monks story come from?
In the Crimson article about the controversy, I found a clue: It referred to a Virginia company employing Indian workers to transcribe the editions of The Crimson published after 1900. Healy’s Globe article held another clue: a line about a “group of monks in India” transcribing those editions.
I turned next to The Crimson’s president, who had an archive of important documents from past presidents. She quickly found what I was looking for: a transcription services contract with a Virginia-based company called Electronic Scriptorium.
The founding story of Electronic Scriptorium goes like this, according to its now-defunct website: In 1988, Edward M. Leonard “had a great job, a great salary, a great title and was miserable being a part of the rat race.” An “environmental activist,” he decided to help a local group of Trappist monks in Leesburg, Va., fend off the planned renovation of an abandoned country club just across the Shenandoah river from their monastery.
While helping them through their dispute, Leonard learned that the monks had recently been given a new computer system to help manage their fruitcake business, which they didn’t know how to use. Leonard helped them set it up and then found ways to put them to work with it and generate revenue during the fruitcake off-season. Thus was born Electronic Scriptorium, which was based in Virginia but expanded to hire monks and nuns from around the country to digitize the paper-bound records of libraries, law firms, and other organizations.
“The underlying business concept,” reads a 2002 iteration of the company’s website, “has a certain obviousness that often elicits the exclamation, ‘Why didn’t I think of that!’”
The business concept might have been more obvious anytime between the 6th and 15th centuries, when monks busied themselves transcribing manuscripts on vellum for wealthy patrons. Magazines and newspapers soon jumped on this new version of an old story. “Modern monks toil the high-tech way,” reads a 1994 Washington Post headline. “This monastery is part of an effort to bring religious communities back into the information business,” a 1996 Chronicle of Higher Education article says of one of Electronic Scriptorium’s business partners.
There were occasional hitches — in 1999, a group of nuns assigned to a contract with Drugstore.com, an online pharmacy, refused to type in prices for condoms – but for the most part, Electronic Scriptorium claimed, the monastic communities were well adapted to the task.
“The wide breadth and knowledge combined with the many foreign language and other abilities found within the monasteries provide a rich resource ready to be tapped for your e-commerce needs,” its website boasted in 2001. The future had arrived, borne on the robed shoulders of cloistered cyber-jockeys.
Electronic Scriptorium lasted a decade and a half. In August 2007, the company filed for bankruptcy after a series of legal disputes, and Electronic Scriptorium disappeared.
But in the meantime, had the company somehow brought the archives of The Crimson to India and placed them in the hands of monks?
Clark Rumrill, now in his mid-eighties, is a former Electronic Scriptorium contractor. When we talked on the phone, he told me he had worked most of his career for the State Department, with postings in Egypt, Afghanistan, India, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Jerusalem.
There are suggestions that Rumrill was not just an ordinary State Department employee. A recently-released diplomatic cable from when Rumrill was stationed in Jerusalem in 1973 details how a Marine guard was moved into his home after an article was published in an Arabic paper accusing Rumrill of collecting intelligence for the recent Israeli raid on Beirut. In another cable from 1976, Henry Kissinger takes a personal interest in the shipment of some household effects to Rumrill’s address in Virginia.
A 1981 issue of the Covert Action Information Bulletin, a magazine founded by ex-CIA agent Phillip B. F. Agee to unmask and oppose the CIA’s activities and postings, lists Rumrill as the CIA’s new Chief of Station – the top CIA official in a foreign country – at the Cairo embassy. Rumrill wrote in an email that “the CAIB's suggestion that I was CIA chief of station in Cairo is incorrect.”
In any case, Rumrill left government service in 1987 with a host of connections across the Middle East and South Asia. “He had connections everywhere,” remembers Betsy Proch, who worked as a contractor with Electronic Scriptorium alongside Rumrill.
On a trip to India in 1989 to explore prospects for his own small data entry venture, Rumrill met a 27-year-old entrepreneur, fresh out of a master’s program at Pune University in Western India, named Chetan Sharma. Chetan Sharma says that at that time, he already had a “utopian” vision of the equalizing power of information technology. “I knew that technology can prove a great empowering tool,” he remembers. He had just founded his firm, Datamation, which employs poor, rural workers to do data entry work.
What made the work “empowering,” Chetan Sharma says, was not the wages the workers were paid, which were around the industry standard – 4500 rupees per month in 2000, or about $100 at that time – but the prospect of steady employment. “There could be some places where they might get higher wages, but not the career stability,” Chetan Sharma tells me.
Chetan Sharma says this was especially important for rural women, who might otherwise not have been able to make a living. “Even that small paycheck matters so much for them,” he says. “Just so that they can feed their children properly and send them to proper schools.”
Chetan Sharma introduced me to a Datamation worker, Sunita Sharma (no relation to Chetan Sharma), with whom I talked on Skype with Chetan Sharma interpreting. She says that she was in her early 20s and had just completed her schooling when she took the test to be hired by Datamation in the mid-90s. She started by doing data entry and is still with Datamation today in the accounts department, now earning around 14,000 rupees per month. Without that first job, she says, she would have been stuck as a “homemaker.”
Rumrill had a few Indian phone books to transcribe for his data-entry business, and gave Chetan Sharma and his new firm the task. This began a business relationship which, Chetan Sharma says, became more than that.
“I’ve known him for many, many decades — he’s almost like a father figure in the family,” Chetan Sharma says. “Clark knew that we were capable of giving really good quality. He also knew about my value system, where I was deeply caring and compassionate for the wider issues and not just about earning profits.”
Rumrill found Chetan Sharma’s apparent lack of interest in profits useful in at least one respect. When Rumrill began contracting for Electronic Scriptorium in 1990, Leonard, the company’s founder, was looking for ways to further expand his business. “[Leonard] was interested in getting data entry entered by hand,” Rumrill says. “And I was able to produce people in India that could do it for a reasonable price.”
Leonard and Rumrill went to scout out Chetan Sharma’s data entry facilities in Gurugram, a high-tech and business-friendly city on the outskirts of New Delhi. “We hopped on an airplane, went off to India, and spent a week kind of wandering around together and talking with Chetan Sharma and his firm,” Rumrill says.
That is how Datamation began doing transcription jobs for Electronic Scriptorium. In 1999, when first looking for a way to digitize the 20th-century portion of its archives, The Crimson turned to Electronic Scriptorium. Proch, who did most of the work setting up that project, says The Crimson was attracted by the publicity around the now-semi-famous typing monks in Virginia, where the company was founded.
For Electronic Scriptorium, the prospect of generating the same kind of publicity that had gotten The Crimson’s attention seemed to be one of the benefits of the contract – its website boasted of its partnership with an “Ivy-League university” to transcribe its newspaper, and elsewhere includes a detailed case study of its work for The Crimson.
So, for Electronic Scriptorium and for The Crimson, the arrangement looked promising. But there was still one problem: “Doing any kind of archive like that is just really, really expensive,” Proch says.
The monks being too pricey, she says, “The Crimson chose the less expensive route.”
And here at last is the answer: No monks ever typed the archives of The Crimson. The 19th-century editions were transcribed by poor and disabled Cambodian workers hired by Digital Divide Data, while for the 20th-century editions Electronic Scriptorium — a company that originally hired monks in Virginia — subcontracted to Datamation, which hired poor, rural workers living on the outskirts of New Delhi.
That answer raises other issues, though. Is this a story, as in Thomas Friedman’s book, of opportunity given to the destitute, or as in Patrick Healy’s newspaper article, of the hypocritical exploitation of cheap foreign labor?
To some people — like Hockenstein and Friedman — stories like Eng O’Brien’s and Sunita Sharma’s illustrate how globalization of the labor market through outsourcing projects has the potential to do a great deal of good.
But to others this enthusiasm can seem like a cover for neo-colonialism.
Harvard history professor Maya Jasanoff, who studies globalization, explains that these outsourcing projects were part of a larger trend. “That real booster language, of ‘We’re here to save the world,’ gets really amped up in the ’90s and onwards,” she says. “The idea that some sort of typically Western intervention can bring social good is one of the through-lines of imperial history.”
But the effects of these interventions can often be complicated. “There’s obviously an expectation that workers in certain countries don’t deserve the same wages,” Jasanoff says. She notes that an economist might say that the difference in wages is justified by a lower foreign cost of living. But it might also be a function of foreign workers’ reduced bargaining power.
Moreover, Jasanoff says, this sort of rhetoric is often bolstered by claims that the companies are empowering women. They often are, she continues, but those claims still serve a deliberate purpose — they distract from the ethics of the use of low-wage foreign labor.
Proch remembers “boxes and boxes” of The Crimson’s 20th-century editions arriving at the Electronic Scriptorium offices in Leesburg, Va. There, Rumrill packed them into suitcases and flew to New Delhi, where he delivered the suitcases to Chetan Sharma.
Datamation workers transcribed the papers, each one taking between 36 and 48 hours to complete. Chetan Sharma glanced through them from time to time. He especially enjoyed the articles about campus politics around the Vietnam war — “I used to find it very fascinating to read,” he says. Finally, Datamation would load the papers back into boxes and ship them by air or sea back to Virginia.
In addition to lower labor costs, part of what made this complicated route cost a fraction of the domestic monks’ rate was that Chetan Sharma agreed to take the contract for a much lower rate than he usually charged North American clients. “I was young; my company was new at that time,” he says. “And obviously, Harvard is Harvard is Harvard. And I have huge respect for Harvard and The Crimson.”
So, for what Chetan Sharma calls “one of the most cherished and the most important projects in my professional journey thus far,” he barely broke even, charging Electronic Scriptorium 45 or 50 cents per 1000 characters delivered.
“It was a conscious decision,” Chetan Sharma says. “We managed to cover our costs; we managed to get a lot of goodwill from Clark and from the team.” But his goodwill did not come easily.
A few months into the project, Rumrill, to whom Chetan Sharma gave “complete and open access” to his facilities, announced that progress was too slow.
“He was very anxious,” Chetan Sharma recalls. “And he also told us, frankly, that if the project didn’t speed up, it’s quite possible that The Crimson may have an afterthought, and they may take away either the part of the work or all of the work and give it to someone else.”
Chetan Sharma already had 80-90 people working on the paper 24 hours each day, in three 8-hour shifts. After Rumrill prodded him to speed up, Chetan Sharma increased his workforce to 120-150 people working each day.
The push for speed caused its own problems.
“Sometimes, we tried to be too quick,” Proch remembers. In a few of the transcriptions that Electronic Scriptorium received from Datamation, she says, there were enough formatting and transcription errors that she required them to be redone. Proch recalls that conversations between management at Electronic Scriptorium and Datamation could be “a little heated.”
“Like every project, there were issues and challenges in the beginning, and those were sorted out,” Chetan Sharma says. Proch also says the issues were quickly “ironed out,” and that The Crimson never noticed any of the difficulties between Electronic Scriptorium and Datamation. The Crimson hired Digital Divide Data — the company founded by Hockenstein based in Cambodia — after Datamation’s work was completed to go back over the transcribed 20th century editions for remaining errors.
Whatever was left didn’t attract much attention at all until that night last November, when my editor saw a typo in the archives and mused that “the monks” had been getting tired.
That typo, to me, has something of the geologically sacred: It is the fossilized trilobite that revealed an era when The Crimson flew across oceans and continents in a suitcase. Following the typo, I found a story about monks, but they were only peripherally involved. Instead, I found a more complicated story – one that brought The Crimson to India, computers to Cambodia, and Naleak Eng O’Brien to Massachusetts, and generated arguments about globalization and imperialism that beset us still today.
— Staff writer Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @OLRiskinKutz.